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POLITICS: PennAve

Sen. Lisa Murkowski excoriates Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Alaska road decision

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Congress,Interior,Alaska,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Zack Colman,Sally Jewell,Lisa Murkowski

The birds are putting Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at "loggerheads."

At issue is Jewell's December rejection of a congressionally approved land swap that would have permitted a 10-mile road to run through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

The long-sought road would connect the remote King Cove community to an all-weather airport used for emergency medical evacuations in Cold Bay. But Jewell said a department review found the road would endanger federally protected waterfowl and shorebirds, and that it would consider alternatives.

Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has said there are no alternatives to the road. An earlier plan to provide a hovercraft proved ineffective, and she said using the Coast Guard for emergencies would be too costly. She threatened to hold up Jewell's nomination over the subject last year but eventually relented.

On Wednesday, though, she made it clear in a Senate Appropriations Environment and Interior Subcommittee hearing that all is not forgotten.

"I will never forget the telephone conversation you and I had on December 23rd," Murkowski told Jewell. "I told you at that time, and I have repeated, I cannot convey in words adequate to describe the frustration, the anger, the sadness with which I received that decision."

Their relationship is key because Murkowski is in line to take over the Energy Committee, which oversees Interior, if Republicans regain the Senate majority in November.

Few people would argue that the Obama administration's priorities would face smooth sailing in a GOP-controlled Senate. But one GOP aide said winning concessions could face roadblocks, with the King Cove situation lingering.

"Jewell is someone who has the ability and background to work well with Republicans," a GOP aide said. "But if that doesn’t translate into good relationships with key members — of which Murkowski is one — that’s a major detriment to getting things done."

Still, Murkowski said a 90-minute meeting with Jewell on Tuesday was "very respectful" and that the two "acknowledged we have many issues to work on."

It appears Murkowski's options to force a reversal may be limited.

She said she's hoping to convince Jewell to reopen the decision. A legislative tack is also an option.

"Sometimes around here you have to ruffle a few feathers to get your issue to the top of the stack," Murkowski, flanked by King Cove residents, said Wednesday at a press conference in Washington. "Well, if King Cove isn't at the top of her stack now, we're going to darn well make sure that it is."

But the King Cove issue isn't exactly new. Alaska's congressional delegation has been fighting for a road for more than 20 years.

Josh Saks, legislative director at the National Wildlife Federation, said the case is closed on the road, arguing that both pressuring the administration and trying to pass legislation were likely dead ends.

"I don't think that it would be easy to pass that, or to get the president to sign that, especially since his secretary made that decision," Saks told the Washington Examiner.

He said that Murkowski is practical, and that she wouldn't let the King Cove issue affect how she deals with Interior broadly, not least because so much of Alaska is in federal hands.

"I think Sen. Murkowski is upset with the decision. I think she has an ax to grind, but I don't think this goes anywhere," he said.

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Zack Colman

Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner